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The Unintended Origins of NORAD's Santa Tracker: A Christmas Tradition Takes Flight

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In the heartwarming realm of Christmas traditions, few are as beloved as the annual NORAD Santa Tracker, guiding millions of eager children worldwide as they follow Santa Claus on his global gift-giving journey. What many may not realize is that this festive custom, now firmly embedded in holiday celebrations, began more than 50 years ago due to a simple typo in a Colorado newspaper advertisement.

Back in 1955, Sears Roebuck & Co. placed an ad in a Colorado Springs-area newspaper, inviting children to call a specified phone number and speak directly to Santa. However, fate intervened in the form of a misprinted number that, instead of connecting to the North Pole, led children to dial the telephone on the desk of Colonel Harry Shoup, the director of operations at the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD).

Terri Van Keuren, one of Colonel Shoup’s daughters, vividly recalls the significance of the now-infamous red phone. “Only a four-star general at the Pentagon and my dad had the number,” she shared during a recent visit to StoryCorps, where she and her siblings recounted the charming origin story of the Santa tracking program.

One fateful December day, Colonel Shoup received an unexpected call from a small voice inquiring about Santa. Initially caught off guard, Shoup decided to play along, a gesture that would set the stage for a heartwarming tradition. As more calls flooded in, Shoup enlisted the help of airmen to field inquiries on behalf of Santa. On Christmas Eve, they added Santa’s sleigh to the command center’s glass board, typically reserved for tracking flights over the United States.

Van Keuren nostalgically shared, “Next thing you know, Dad had called the radio station and had said, ‘This is the commander at the Combat Alert Center, and we have an unidentified flying object. Why, it looks like a sleigh.’ Well, the radio stations would call him like every hour and say, ‘Where’s Santa now?'”

And thus, a cherished tradition was born.

Letters poured in from around the globe, expressing gratitude to Colonel Shoup for his sense of humor and for initiating a tradition that touched the hearts of so many. In 1958, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) officially took over the responsibility of tracking Santa. Today, NORAD staff, along with volunteers from their families and friends, dedicate their time to answering children’s calls, letters, and emails, ensuring that the magic of tracking Santa’s flight lives on each Christmas. The accidental misprint in a newspaper ad turned a small act of kindness into a global phenomenon, proving that sometimes the best traditions are the ones that happen by mistake.

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